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For pianist Dan Tepfer, improvisation is the mother of Bach's Inventions

Two musical worlds collide as jazz pianist Dan Tepfer finds inspiration, and room for improvisation, in J.S. Bach's Two-Part Inventions.



If any of you listening are piano players or used to take piano lessons, you may know Johann Sebastian Bach's "Two-Part Inventions."


PFEIFFER: Pianist and composer Dan Tepfer says the short pieces are in the bloodstream of many young pianists.

DAN TEPFER: These inventions really shape how everyone plays the piano. They're so deceptively simple, but the musical content is so profound that it's really this wonderful way of introducing children to what the greatest music can be.

PFEIFFER: Bach wrote these exercises for a total of 15 major and minor keys out of the 24 available. So Tepfer improvised pieces for the missing keys.


PFEIFFER: You can hear his reinventions on his new album out today called "Inventions/Reinventions." Dan Tepfer told me he thinks about music as telling a story.

TEPFER: In classical narrative structure, you have a protagonist - a hero or a heroine - to follow on the journey, on the story. And then something happens, and they're thrust into chaos, into the unknown. During Act 2, the protagonist will go on a series of tests or some kind of journey, and Act 3, we typically find them back at home. And this is exactly what Bach is doing in the "Inventions." And I was so struck by it that I asked myself, could I do a free improvisation that tells a story following these same principles?

PFEIFFER: So although many people would think of narrative and protagonists as writing or a book, you see the parallel, the equivalent in music.

TEPFER: Absolutely. Just to give an example, the first invention goes da, da, da, da, do, di, do.


TEPFER: That's our character. And we are constantly reexposed to the same character, and we start to get to know them.


TEPFER: And then Bach turns that character upside down. Ba, da, do, do, da, do, da, da.


TEPFER: And so what we're seeing is different facets of this character, in the same way that a writer might make a character more than two dimensional in a play or a movie.


PFEIFFER: Dan, the best way for our listeners to understand what you've done would be for them to hear it. Is there a particular one you think is best for explaining what you've done and your approach?

TEPFER: Absolutely. For example, if you listen to my first improvisation in D-flat major...


TEPFER: ...I came up with a theme. Ba, da, da, da, do, do, da.


TEPFER: And that immediately is my character. This is my protagonist on the story I'm going to tell, but suddenly we'll find ourselves in a new key.


TEPFER: The minor keys, for example, have a real bitter sweetness to them. You know, if you're telling a story, our character might have a moment of loss or be challenged with some deep emotional reflection. But eventually it's time to go home. And then as gracefully as possible, we return.


PFEIFFER: Some of what you've done feels almost jazzy, like a blend of jazz and classical music. Is that what you were aiming for?

TEPFER: I'm aiming to be myself, to be in conversation with Bach, not to be playing on his turf, but to be using his ideas on my turf, which I think is what any good conversation is. I am a jazz musician. I grew up with jazz. My whole approach to improvisation really comes from jazz. So if you hear a moment that sounds jazzy, that's just because there's quite a bit of jazz in me.


PFEIFFER: The pieces in minor keys, not surprisingly, often sound less cheerful, more dissonant. The opposite of that is that some of your music had me actually tapping my head and my feet along with it, which some people might think you'd expect from poppier music. Are you trying to get listeners to think differently about what classical music can be when you're improvising?

TEPFER: I'm not trying to get my listeners to do anything. I'm just trying to express myself. On the other hand, one of the things I love about Bach is that he is able to bring a sense of sincere joy to his music. And when I listen to it, there's never anything about it that feels corny or silly or superficial to me. The joy is fully earned and fully owned, I would say.


TEPFER: That's something that I think has been challenging for me, is to bring sincere joy to my music. I think in jazz there can be a tendency to want to act cool, a tendency to not wear your heart on your sleeve and to be embarrassed at doing that. And that's actually one of the things that I enjoyed doing the most in this project is searching for that sense of joy and not shying away from it. So whether I'm dealing with the music of Bach or whether I'm dealing with my own music or whether I'm dealing with the music of my peers, it really comes down to the same thing, which is, can I be myself today?


PFEIFFER: What do you think Bach would think about you filling in gaps in his work?

TEPFER: I mean, I hesitate to even use the term filling in gaps in his work. There's nothing incomplete, really, about the "Inventions." It's worth remembering here that in his own lifetime, Bach was most famous as an improviser. In fact, people traveled from all over Europe to go hear Bach improvise. And it's really only after his death that he became most famous as a composer. So improvisation was absolutely at the core of Bach's being. And I would hope that he would be at least intrigued and maybe touched by the fact that someone 300 years after he wrote these pieces is trying to, in his own way, engage with the abstract ideas supporting Bach's work.

PFEIFFER: That's pianist and composer Dan Tepfer. His new album, "Inventions/Reinventions," is out today. Dan, thank you. And I loved listening to this album.

TEPFER: Oh, thank you so much.

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